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Josh Reviews Molly’s Game

Molly’s Game is Aaron Sorkin’s adaptation of the book Molly’s Game: From Hollywood’s Elite to Wall Street’s Billionaire Boys Club, My High-Stakes Adventure in the World of Underground Poker by Molly Bloom.  Molly trained to be a competitive skier, but when an injury ended her sports career, she found herself adrift.  A job as an assistant eventually led her to become responsible for setting up a high stakes poker game.  Molly became the manager of that weekly game, which developed into her managing her own business and multiple games frequented by movie stars and other extremely wealthy individuals.  But it all came crashing down when Molly was arrested and charged with money laundering and running an illegal sports gambling operation.

I first became a fan of Aaron Sorkin’s watching The West Wing, which still stands as one of the finest TV series ever made (at least the first four seasons which Mr. Sorkin masterminded).  I then went back and devoured Sports Night (which, if you’ve never seen, you need to run, don’t walk, and watch immediately), and I have been a faithful fan ever since, following Mr. Sorkin through his subsequent shows (all of which I have enjoyed, even though none have come close to The West Wing or Sports Night) and, of course, all of his fantastic movie work.  Mr. Sorkin has scripted some of my very favorite movies, including A Few Good Men (which I just recently rewatched for the umpteenth time, and it holds up SO WELL), An American President (say it with me, folks: “this is a time for serious people, Bob, and your fifteen minutes are up.  My name is Andrew Shepherd, and I AM the President”), Charlie Wilson’s War, The Social Network, Moneyball, and Steve Jobs.  (I love ALL of those films.)  Mr. Sorkin wrote Molly’s Game and the film is his directorial debut.

I really enjoyed this film.  I don’t know if any of what is depicted in the film is true to Molly Bloom’s real life and experiences.  But the Molly Bloom who is the main character in this film is a spectacular character, one who is very much of this particular moment.  This is the story of a strong woman who is surrounded by arrogant, domineering men, and who sets out to be her own woman and make her own way, as unorthodox as the path she chooses might be.  It’s an inspiring tale, frankly!  Is any of this true?  Is Molly Bloom actually this strong, principled woman, or is this mythologizing bullshit?  I don’t know, and the movie is so good that I don’t care.  Some based-on-real-life movies fall apart for me once I start questioning the veracity of the events depicted (A Beautiful Mind is a primary example of this, for me), but I was swept away by the story of Molly’s Game, and even if this is a fantasy, well, I enjoyed the heck out of the fantasy.

Jessica Chastain crushes this leading role.  She carries the movie.  She becomes this character, and the force of her personality immediately hooks the audience into this story, her story, and carries us along through the film.  Narration can often be clumsy and awkward in movies, but I loved Ms. Chastain’s narration work as Molly throughout the film.  It makes sense that the film is structured as though Molly is telling us her story.  And having this narration be written by the great Aaron Sorkin doesn’t hurt!

Idris Elba is also fantastic as Charlie Jaffey, Molly’s lawyer after her arrest.  Mr. Elba’s amazing presence and glorious voice make him a perfect match for Mr. Sorkin’s dialogue.  This movie works because of how fantastic both Ms. Chastain and Mr. Elba are at delivering the words written by Mr. Sorkin and making them sing.

Mr. Sorkin’s script is the key component in Molly’s Game, but his direction is solid and confident, belying this being his first film at the helm.  The film is rather long, but I didn’t think it sagged at all.  Mr. Sorkin has jammed a LOT of plot and circumstance into this movie, but the film zips along at a fast pace.  Yes, it helps that Ms. Chastain and Mr. Elba are speaking Mr. Sorkin’s wonderful words at a fast clip.  But the film is jauntily edited, with lots of wonderful asides and cleverly put-together montages that help cover a lot of ground, as well as explain what is going on (particularly in the poker games) in a way that is fun and keeps everything moving along.

Speaking of the poker, I loved the varied ways the film explained the poker games being played, with graphics and text on the screen and voice-over narration.  But I also appreciated that the film didn’t get too bogged down in the actual poker.  For the most part, the film choses, wisely, not to focus on the specifics of the games being played but rather to dig into the characters.  That’s a key to the film’s success.  (It reminds me of the way that Moneyball, also scripted by Mr. Sorkin, is about baseball but doesn’t actually depict that much baseball being played.)

I enjoyed the film’s structure, in which events are presented slightly out of order, as Molly tells her story but we keep cutting ahead to her life post-arrest and her attempt, with Charlie, to mount a defense to the charges brought against her.  From the film’s trailers, I worried this structure would feel too similar to that of The Social Network (in which the characters’ depositions in a years-later lawsuit provides the spine for the telling of the story), but this was different enough that it worked for me and didn’t feel like a repeat of something we’d already seen.  The jumping around in time kept the story interesting, and allowed Idris Elba to enter the film far sooner than he would have had the story been told strictly chronologically, and that’s a very good thing indeed.

Michael Cera is great as “Player X,” the big-name movie star who dominates the first game Molly runs, and who eventually screws her over when he tires of her.  (From what I have read, this character was based on Tobey Maguire in real life.  It is not a flattering portrayal!)  I quite enjoyed Kevin Costner as Molly’s tough father, Larry.  Mr. Costner is great in the film, all tough-love dad, and he’s particularly great delivering his final monologue (in a scene on a park bench late in the film).  Chris O’Dowd is really terrific as Douglas, the drunk who winds up introducing Molly to members of the Russian mob (oops), and Brian d’Arcy James is great as “Bad” Brad, another memorable player who also winds up getting Molly into trouble.  (Just look at this list of these men who keep letting Molly down!  The film is not subtle about hitting these notes, but in the current zeitgeist this aspect of the movie really resonated with me.)

If the film has a weak spot, it’s that it edges just a hair too close into schmaltz in the final fifteen minutes.  Both Idris Elba as Charlie and Kevin Costner as Larry get monologues in which we finally see powerful men in Molly’s life live up to her hopes and expectations for them.  The scenes, taken together, feel to me like somewhat too quick and easy a resolution to the film’s major character arcs.  But the scenes are so well-written and so well-performed that it’s hard to be too sore about them.

If you’re an Aaron Sorkin fan — and, really, you should be — you’ll enjoy Molly’s Game, I promise.  I can’t wait to see it again, just to soak up all of the turns of phrase that I know I missed on this initial viewing.

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